Holding Pattern


As Tim said in his earlier post, we are huge fans of Interboro. There are many things we like about their approach to planning and design, but perhaps most importantly the way they foreground community (this is almost certainly the first time in the history of MoMA’s Young Architects program that the neighbors have been asked what their needs are). Even their PS 1 installation comes with a whole series of events and community programming, which are almost as important as the web-like installation itself. If I could “like” it multiple times on facebook, I would.


Grab the Donut by the Horns


White board sketch courtesy of Utile, Inc.

Born out of my propensity for mixed metaphors (mostly for humor/seldom by accident!), the use of the word “donut” at Utile to mean “your personal responsibility requiring full follow-through”, and my fascination with the history of the croissant – a donut with convenient handles (and a provocative new shape) was born.  

Think of the convenience – especially when seasonal frosted donuts are marketed – and the open-ended play during morning meetings (“Let’s ask Yoda?”, etc., etc.).  BTW – Utile owns the copyright to this concept plus the tag line “Grab your Donut by the Horns”, “Grab the Donut by the Horns”, and “Horny Donut”.  Operators are standing by.


Some Maps Scream; Others Whisper


Tim’s earlier post about the exhibit of pre-civil war maps reminded me of a recent entry in the NYTimes Disunion series, also about famous maps of the era.  This one of Virginia, prepared by the US Coast Survey in 1861, was one of the first maps to show census information spatially; in this case, the visualization of the proportion of slave populations by county threw into sharp relief the diverging political-economic interests of the two halves of the state, expediting, as the article argues, their eventual separation.

Of course, the idea of mapping as an ideologically-driven pratice is not new, but the stark, bully-behind-the-pulpit tone of the Virginia maps must have been a real shock to the 1860s public who had hitherto thought of cartography as a genteel, politically naive art.  That is not to say that the latter is necessarily less effective.  As Tim’s Lowell vs. Baton Rouge example shows, the more ostensibly naive maps does take on complex meanings on the sly, either in hindsight or (as in our case) in juxtaposition.  Indeed, the pleasure of these maps is often the reward they offer to the patient, trained eye.

Hitting the right didactic clarity vs. nuance quotient has been a big preoccupation in our recent mapping work.  While a lot of contemporary mapping/information design veers far to the nuance end of the spectrum and becomes painfully cutesy and pointless (“I see you’ve mapped cupcake consumption by zip code in the whole country–cool story bro!“), there are others whose work offers, however inconsistenly, meandering pleasure and legibility of idea in equal measure.

Back to the Virginia maps–in September 1861, after West Virginia’s sessession from Virginia was all but accomplished, the same map was re-issued with a satisfyingly dark line drawn between the two halves: a cartographic happy ending.


PS1: On the Ropes

Interboro’s PS1 win is a great story (we LOVE Interboro) – but perhaps the death of a certain kind of PS1 installation because the rope above maybe doesn’t even really matter. The real impact (and innovation) of their installation happens at the ground plane, where a series of highly-charged social spaces have been created based on process that sought thoughtful feedback from the community. 

Whether the web-like structure matters (or not) will need to be evaluated at night (another Utile field trip!) when the courtyard functions as an amazing kind of public space.  In this case, the lighting design will be almost everything. 

String Tunnel, a similar installation at MIT created by Yuna Kim, Kelly Shaw, and Travis Williams for the MIT FAST arts festival, was successful precisely because it was so spidery-ephemeral. Not sure if PS1 party-goers will be in the same hyper-attentive mode as the crowd that moved through the MIT Courts last month.



Utile Field Trip to the Gardner Museum


Utile made an office field trip to the Gardner Museum today to see the new wing, currently under construction–and opening January 2012! On the way, we made a pit stop at Tenshin-en, an outdoor Japanese garden on the backside of the MFA (free and open to the public). A fitting stop because the garden is named after the first Japanese curator at the MFA–and a confidante of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Many thanks to Lieza Dagher and Jim Labeck for the tour of the Gardner!

Parcel Patterns, Culture, and Power


Detail of a map of the parishes of Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville including parts of the parishes of St. Martins and Ascension, Louisiana, 1859

I highly recommend Torn in Two: the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War at the Boston Public Library (open through December of this year). The exhibition is primarily comprised of maps from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center and includes great examples of information design – mostly to communicate a complicated social and political story (before the Civil War) and the geography of the southern United States and the developing war (during the Civil War) – to new public audiences in northern cities.

The best part of the exhibition is a comparison of the plantations that front the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, Louisiana (a map from 1859 above) with a map of central Lowell, MA at the birth of the industrial revolution in 1850. The juxtaposition between the land use patterns where cotton was grown and where the raw material was manufactured into textiles sums up the radical differences in culture between the two regions of the country. The logic of long skinny plantation parcels parallel to the river – maximizing the number of parcels with water access – is the same as the early plot plan of Providence, Rhode Island.

You can zoom into the Baton Rouge plantation map to see more detail and see other maps at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center website.


New Haven brand


The New Haven Railroad logo

Another strong non-Yale identity for New Haven – and consistent in machismo and color to East Rock – see blog post below.

This is what I found about the corporate identity on the web: In 1955 the New Haven Railroad undertook a multi-faceted program to help change its corporate image through the use of graphic design principles. This effort, which was supervised by Lucille McGinnis, the artistically trained wife of New Haven president Patrick McGinnis, was actually implemented by Herbert Matter with the assistance of Norman Ives. Both Matter and Ives were professional graphic designers who taught at Yale University.


East Rock and the Rock of Gibraltar


East Rock, New Haven, Connecticut, painted by George Henry Durrie, 1840s


Rock of Gibraltar as the Prudential Insurance symbol

East Rock in New Haven, Connecticut looms just north of our area of focus for the Mill River planning initiative. As we have worked with Stoss to understand the larger ecological and geological history of the area, we have unearthed a fascinating story that includes Eli Whitney, the iron in Basalt that turns the rock a rusty red, and the iconic presence of East Rock on early views and maps of New Haven. East Rock is a butte – “a conspicuous isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top”. As a result, buttes are strong visual forms and important landmarks. Perhaps East Rock can re-emerge as a symbol of New Haven – a visual brand that can partly disengage the larger culture of the City from the overwhelming influence of Yale. 



Joel Lamere, Lecturer at MIT and Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion collaborator, comments on the Pavilion:

Now if you turned the statue of liberty inside-out, we’d REALLY have something: the explicitness of our beams, their figuration not-so-identically registered to the concrete form, and their ambiguous structural role – I can’t help but reference a stodgier (though no less ambitious) precedent: Peterborough.